Every written work — including this article — should be considered fiction. It’s a retelling of events through a particular lens. We live in a reality that resembles a work of science fiction, one that, back in January, we would’ve called a dystopia.
Believe it or not, the pandemic was predicted in 2012. Just like Jules Verne predicted the submarine and George Orwell the rise of digital control, Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz predicted the denial, spread, and panic of a disease, with eerie resemblance to that of Covid-19.
Every report and news article about the Covid-19 pandemic may have credibility but not necessarily verity. For instance, the Chinese government and the World Health Organization (WHO) spread misinformation by downplaying physical transmission, labelling masks as unnecessary, and understating the prevalence of the disease. If the WHO had held the Chinese Communist Party accountable, cases in China would have been reduced by 95 per cent. Even after the WHO proclaimed a pandemic on March 11, the data on accounted cases were obscured by gender and race biases.
The disease depicted in Junot Diaz’s Monstro is similarly shrouded in misinformation and biases: “There were widespread rumors that the infected were devils, even reports of relatives attempting to set their infected family members on fire.” La Negrura — the Darkness — comprised black pustules that developed along appendages. Other behavioral symptoms emerged as the story advanced, from synchronized shrieking to the merging of pustules among patients.
While these symptoms fall more into the realm of an incoming zombie apocalypse, there’s no denying that, just as the Darkness affected the characters’ senses of touch and sound, Covid-19 similarly affects our senses of smell and taste. Increasingly similar was the population’s reaction: “I was one of the idiots who didn’t heed any of the initial reports, who got caught way out there. What can I tell you? My head just wasn’t into any mysterious disease.” Covid-19 sceptics and naysayers claim that masks stop their breathing, the Chinese government invented the virus in a lab, and the virus is no worse than the common flu.
The media response is also similar to the world in Monstro. When the pandemic started, people claimed that cold weather exacerbated Covid-19, just as la Negrura increased with the heat. Initially, Western media didn’t examine either disease carefully. Covid-19 began in China, a global power, typically othered by the North American media, while La Negrura emerged in Haiti, a small country in Central America with little political or economic power: “For six, seven months it was just a horrible Haitian disease—who fucking cared, right? A couple of hundred new infections each month in the camps and around Port-au-Prince, pocket change, really.”
Both sicknesses were associated with animals: “zoonotics by the pound.” With Covid-19, some people used this association to perpetuate racist stereotypes, whether through memes of Chinese people eating bats or Donald Trump naming Covid-19 the “Kung flu.” La Negrura also had racist undertones, with people accusing each other of having the disease and joking about a Haitian becoming blacker.
Meanwhile, the international reaction focused on the generational divide, implanting quarantine, and violence as a result of the respective diseases. The idea that Covid-19 solely affected the elderly or people with preexisting conditions emphasized the generational divide. Likewise, the Negrura “seemed to hit only the sickest of the sick – victims who had nine kinds of ill already in them.” Ironically, the first person affected by La Negrura was nine years old, while the first patient to die from Coronavirus was sixty-one years old.
In Monstro, quarantine was implemented in camps for the sick, alongside closing the borders to the Dominican Republic and banning international flights from Haiti. With Covid-19, society confined people to their homes, which also sprung a wave of domestic violence, with cases rising to 20 per cent. In Monstro, the violence was sparked by rioters in the quarantined zones, described by the narrator as a “straight massacre.”
So, should we have predicted the rise of a pandemic? Not necessarily, even when an article published by Scientific American suggests “changes in the timing, geography and intensity of disease outbreaks around the world” following Covid-19, with flu symptoms increasing as a result of global warming. If anything, the Coronavirus pandemic, and its comparison to Díaz’s Monstro, shows how media coverage and the spread of information influences scientific responses. Monstro couldn’t teach us how to best handle the pandemic; Díaz never finished the story. Still, it shows how fiction imitates, and even predicts, real life.